COVID-19 in America: Unknown Unknowns  

I was prepared to monitor the news about the coronavirus, but not stress over it.

I’d seen too many supposed doomsday viral and bacterial threats come and go before. Not that there wasn’t death and suffering attached to those outbreaks—specifically Ebola, SARS, etc., but they never quite materialized into the type of global pandemics the media and governments quite justifiably alerted the populace about.

I was more interested in the Democrat primary campaign, who’s up, who’s down, and who will eventually face President Donald Trump, a commander-in-chief that I believe it is imperative to reelect.

Then an employee at Forest Hills Elementary School in Lake Oswego came down with Oregon’s first presumptive case of the virus. That’s the school my daughter attended as a child. In fact, Lake Oswego is the nexus of my family circle, from our newest babies to my 92-year-old father. It gives pause that Oregon’s first case should surface here. LO for decades was home to the state’s highest per capita incomes, recently vying with some of Oregon’s other affluent communities like West Linn, Sherwood, and Happy Valley, but still in the Beaver State’s top three.

It isn’t that infectious disease knows any socioeconomic strata—in fact, the Oswego case illustrates that viruses and bacteria invade even the most affluent communities. It may indicate the existence of a social bias (on my part) that one might expect COVID-19 to first raise its ugly head in a more disadvantaged and less scrupulously-managed part of the state.

The school was immediately closed for deep cleaning.

The next day, America saw it’s first coronavirus death, 173 miles north of Portland in Seattle, Washington. Here’s the lowdown from the Washington Post:

The novel coronavirus has probably been spreading undetected for about six weeks in Washington state, where the first U.S. death was reported this weekend. A genetic analysis suggests that the cases are linked through community transmission and that this has been going on for weeks, with hundreds of infections likely in the state.

The sometimes deadly, often severely sickening, and in most cases rather benignly-prognosed virus had arrived in the United States, and quite pronouncedly in the Pacific Northwest.

Still not stressing, although the media coverage was 24/7.

At Mass on Sunday it was announced from the altar that sips from the communal wine cup “would not be available,” and the assemblage was cautioned against shaking hands, joining hands during the “Our Father,” or any other form of person-to-person contact. The proverbial adage “peace be with you” was rendered completely hands-free, with lots of nods and hand waves.

Back in the political arena, Joe Biden had handily won South Carolina as expected, but the former VP’s prospects on Super Tuesday were as tenuous as ever. On "Fox News Sunday" Biden was busy lowering expectations, saying, to paraphrase, that there were a lot of upcoming contests in important states after March 3, and that his presidential bid would survive even what was shaping up as a potential Bernie Sanders night of nights.

Sharing headlines and chyrons with the Democrats was the ever-expanding swath of the coronavirus. The coverage got me thinking about author John M. Barry’s nonfiction bestseller The Great Influenza. Over a lifetime of reading terrifying books, it’s one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read.

Barry’s harrowing book recounts the horror of 1918’s Spanish Flu pandemic, where 20-50 million perished. The horror among horrors of the last truly catastrophic global pandemic* was that being young and healthy was no safeguard against the worst ravages. Unlike with other flu strains, millions in the prime of their lives died—more so than did the young or old.

The way in which Barry’s volume came into my hands is singular. I was browsing at a used nonprofit book store that donates proceeds to the Lake Oswego Library, picked it up, glanced at the cover and back-copy, and purchased it. It wasn’t until I got the book home and opened it that I noticed an inscription. I immediately recognized the woman’s name on the flyleaf page—Anita Dawson—as being that of a Portland neighbor we’d lived next door to for ten years.

Only weeks before visiting the bookstore in August 2017, I’d attended a memorial service for Anita at a Lake Grove Presbyterian Church in Oswego. Family and friends took the lectern and spoke highly of this educated (Grinnell College), friendly matriarch, whose home I can attest contained an extremely well-stocked bookshelf. It would have been like Anita or her family to donate her collection to a nonprofit benefiting the local library.

Originally from the state of Iowa, the epitome of America’s heartland, Anita was born in 1918, the very year that the Great Influenza plague swept across the globe. I decided to check the record.

This from Iowa Public Radio on the 100th anniversary of the pandemic:

The Iowa State Board of Health, in its final tally, reported 6,116 Iowans died of the flu, including 132 in Cedar Rapids and 30 in Iowa City, in the last three months of 1918. Another 3,085 had died of pneumonia. More than 93,500 people statewide had been counted as sick from the flu.

Iowa historian Michael Luick-Thrams goes on in the linked article to cite that the flu was "especially wicked" to those in the 20 to 35 age group, and that “many unborn children also perished, as many pregnant women lost their lives."

Virtually every family with any history in America can likely cite members in the lineage that did not survive the 1918 pandemic. My maternal grandfather’s sister got sick one morning late that year, and died that night. Her young child had died earlier in the afternoon—she was not told of the child’s passing.

Oregon’s first case and a closed school. America’s first death and media and governmental messaging verging on then pulling back from crisis mode. A book inscribed by a woman born the year of the last catastrophic viral pandemic who lived to be almost 100 years old.

The only connectivity here is in a stream-of-consciousness sense, a stream of consciousness that always leads to the big question:  Can it happen again?

That’s always the question when “novel” microbiological threats arise from the stew of organic life on Earth. The fear that inspires ongoing news cycles and governmental scrambles to seemingly have the situation under “control.”

Have medical science and human knowledge and capabilities virtually ensured that 1918 can never happen again?

Whatever the prognosis, COVID-19 has come home to roost.

We’ll closely watch the Democrat primary campaign. It’s like comfort television these days. In the larger scheme of things, it’s probably more important than the coronavirus, but.

Could things be worse, much worse? Nobody knows.

* Not counting AIDS, death toll 36 million, which is not contracted through casual contact.

Mark Ellis is the author of A Death on the Horizon, a novel of political upheaval and cultural intrigue. He came aboard at PJ Media in 2015. His literary hangout is Liberty Island. Follow Mark on Twitter.